origin of ‘to don’ and ‘to doff’

Félix Vallotton - Le Chapeau violet (1907)

Le Chapeau violet (1907), by Félix Vallotton (1865-1925)
Wikimedia Commons






to don: to put on (an item of clothing)
to doff: to remove (an item of clothing)




The verb to don is a coalesced form of the obsolete phrasal verb to do on, meaning to put on (an item of clothing). For example, in the Coverdale Bible (1535), the Song of Solomon, 5:3, is:

I haue put off my cote, how cā I do it on agayne? I haue washed my fete, how shal I fyle them agayne?

Whereas the same verse is, in the King James Version (1611):

I haue put off my coate, how shall I put it on? I haue washed my feete, how shall I defile them?

One of the earliest users of to don was the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (Folio 1, 1623); Ophelia, who has gone mad, sings:

To morrow is S. Valentines day, all in the morning betime,
And I a Maid at your Window, to be your Valentine.
Then vp he rose, & don’d his clothes, & dupt* the chamber dore,
Let in the Maid, that out a Maid, neuer departed more.

(* to dup: to open – this verb is a coalesced form of to do up.)

Similarly, to doff is a coalesced form of to do off, meaning to take off. For instance, in Thēterlude of youth (The Interlude of Youth), written in the mid-16th century, Pride says to Youth:

I shall tell you
Considre ye haue good ynowe [=enough]
And thing ye come of noble kinde
Aboue all men exalte thy minde
Put downe the poore and se nought bi them
Be in company with gentel man
Iette vp and downe in the waye
And your clothes loke they be gaye
The pretye wenches wyll saye than
yorder goeth a gentelmen
And euery pore felowe that goeth you by
Will do of his cap and make you curteisie
In faith this is true.

In The life and death of King Iohn (Folio 1, 1623), Shakespeare makes Lady Constance say to Lymoges, Duke of Austria:

What a foole art thou,
A ramping foole, to brag, and stamp, and sweare,
Vpon my partie: thou cold blooded slaue,
Hast thou not spoke like thunder on my side?
Beene sworne my Souldier, bidding me depend
Vpon thy starres, thy fortune, and thy strength,
And dost thou now fall ouer to my foes?
Thou weare a Lyons hide, doff it for shame,
And hang a Calues skin on those recreant limbes.

A variant of to doffto daff was used figuratively by Shakespeare to mean to thrust aside, as in this dialogue from Much adoe about Nothing (Folio 1, 1623):

– Leonato. Ile proue it on his body if he dare,
Despight his nice fence, and his actiue practise,
His Maie of youth, and bloome of lustihood.
– Claudio. Away, I will not haue to do with you.
– Leonato. Canst thou so daffe me? thou hast kild my child,
If thou kilst me, boy, thou shalt kill a man.

Shakespeare coined the phrase to daff the world aside, meaning to (try to) make the world get out of one’s way, in The First Part of Henry the Fourth, with the Life and Death of Henry Sirnamed Hot-Spvrre (Folio 1, 1623); Hotspur says:

Where is his Sonne,
The nimble-footed Mad-Cap, Prince of Wales,
And his Cumrades, that daft the World aside,
And bid it passe?

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